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A natural human protein called decorin may prove highly effective in preventing progression of kidney disease, University of Utah researchers announced Wednesday.

Decorin was found by researchers at the U. and the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation to prevent scarring in kidney disease in animals, indicating that decorin may be capable of preventing kidney scarring in humans. Kidney scarring is the leading cause of kidney failure, which is the most costly illness in the United States.Dr. Wayne A. Border, professor and chief of the Division of Nephrology at the U. School of Medicine, called the discovery a breakthrough that could bring millions of dollars to Utah because of a patent.

The research was funded by federal grants, but the state will benefit because Border is on the university's faculty.

"If decorin is developed into a commercial drug, the university would receive a percentage of the sales. As researchers working for the university, our group of 15 researchers are like a small business that benefits Utah," Border told the Deseret News.

Because the research was funded by tax dollars, Border feels it is part of his civic duty to "carry the research as far as possible to develop drug that will benefit the public."

In the past, science has been criticized for producing scientific result but failing to develop a product. President-elect Clinton will emphasize the practical application of science in his new administration. "This research is consistent with that goal," said Border.

The study, published in Thursday's Nature magazine, states that excessive production of transform growth factor beta (TGF-B) is the cause of scarring in kidney disease.

The discovery of a natural inhibitor of TGF-B, decorin, is significant because it brings researchers closer to having an effective cure for kidney disease and disorders that relate to the same process, said Border.

TGF-B stimulates the production of the gluelike material called extracellular matrix - a fiberous meshwork which supports cells and allows tissues to regenerate. Excess TGF-B in the kidneys can cause abnormally high accumulation of extracellular matrix in the kidney's filtering units, causing the filtering apparatus to clog and the kidneys to fail, said Border.

If a drug is developed to reduce kidney clogging, billions could be saved in medical costs. Kidney transplants and dialysis would not be necessary.

The implications of the research are broad, said Border. Decorin could be useful in preventing excessive scarring of the skin, central nervous system, lungs, liver, cardiovascular system and other organs.

The next step in research is the testing of decorin at a 100 times higher level in animals than would be given humans. If no significant side effects are observed, then researchers will apply to the Federal Drug Administration for permission for clinical trials in humans. Clinical tests in humans could begin in a year or two, "if everything goes smoothly," said Border.

Border has been researching the cause of kidney disease for years. In 1988, he conducted research at the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation. In 1989, he returned to Utah.

Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti, president of the La Jolla foundation, said, "I am pleased to see that that findings made in basic cancer research may become useful in the treatment of other diseases also."

Scientists at Telios Pharmaceuticals in San Diego also collaborated with the U. and La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation in the decorin discovery.